Hidden treasures from the eighteenth century

Alethea Mitchell

Whereabouts in Edenbridge did Alice Breakfield, Elizabeth Cole, Sarah and Elizabeth Humphries, and Hannah, Elizabeth and Winifred Mills, live?

The answer is that we don’t know, as the Foundling Hospital records only show the parish. We do know they were women with young families of their own. It could be that the Mills and Humphries were sisters-in-law. Folk didn’t move far away from each other at that time.

When John Warde, of Squerries, (Squerryes Court), in Westerham, who was acting as a Foundling Hospital Inspector, made it known that women were needed to work as wet-nurses to foundling babies, these were the Edenbridge women who came forward.

Employed by the hospital, the women were paid 2/6d (12.5p) a week. John Warde, with his wife Kitty, were responsible for paying the nurses, or ‘foster-mothers’ as well as keeping them supplied with the hospital clothing for the foundling babies in their care. The women could barely afford to clothe their own children, so the clothes were much needed. Inspectors gave advice on care and supplied medicines. Foundling babies were often in a weak and unhealthy state when brought into the Founding Hospital. Inspectors had the authority to call an apothecary when needed. Unfortunately a foster-mother would often become cross-infected by suckling the child. If the baby survived his or her first year, the ‘foster-mother’ would be paid a ‘bounty’ of 10/-s (50p), a welcome bonus for a poor rural family.

The first baby brought to Edenbridge was looked after by Elizabeth Humphries, on or around 12 January 1758. A little boy, he was renamed John Shakespear by the hospital, and given the identification number 6987. John was one of the eight surviving foundlings nursed in Edenbridge. When he was 4 years and 9 months old, he was taken from Elizabeth to the newly opened Westerham Branch Country Foundling Hospital. Between 1760-1769 the branch looked after a total of 469 foundlings. The children received a basic education and were trained to work obediently. At the age of eleven, they were found an apprenticeship. Girls usually went as housemaids. The boys were indentured into husbandry, metal, leather and wood and clothing trades, their master being responsible for them until they were 21 years of age.

When John Shakespear was 10 years old, in 1768, along with 15 other boys from Westerham, he was transferred to the main London Foundling Hospital in Lambs Conduit Fields, from where he was apprenticed to a carpenter, Michael Williamson, in Flaxton in Yorkshire.

The Westerham hospital closed its doors in 1769, but the building, although much altered, still stands, and is now known as Chartwell, a National Trust property

Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International CCBT4.00

Find out more of the story:

The Foundling Hospital charity continues to this day as Coram, the children’s charity. www.coram.org.uk

The Foundling Museum in London tells the story of the Founding Hospital. www.foundlingmuseum.org.uk

For a more detailed story of the Westerham Foundling Hospital see Alethea’s https://foundlinghospital.wordpress.com

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